The news about re-opening of wildlife havens in Rajasthan (from June 8) came as music to ears for nature lovers, wildlife enthusiasts and photographers. The move was an attempt to breathe life into the tourism economy in the state, which has taken a hit due to the lockdown. Rajasthan is home to two of the country’s most-loved tiger reserves.
The forest department has ensured all necessary preparations for the safety of tourists before safaris were opened. According to the guidelines issued by the wildlife department of Rajasthan, tourist vehicles are being allowed to enter the park only after their sanitisation. Thermal screening is being conducted and during the safari, drivers, guides and tourists are required to wear face masks. To ensure that enough social distancing is maintained, only 50 per cent tourists are being allowed to sit in safari vehicles. Children below 10 and adults above 65 are not allowed. The washrooms are off-blounds. And tourists cannot disembark within the tiger reserve. Preference is being given to digital payments.
While in Ranthambore, the response has been overwhelming, tourist influx at Sariska has not met the expectations of forest officials. Speaking to Outlook Traveller, Mukesh Saini, Deputy Conservator of Forests (DCF), Ranthambore, said that ever since the national park has reopened, on an average ten to fifteen safari vehicles are taking the safari every day. “On weekends, the numbers have been pretty good with more than 20 vehicles,” he added. Most visitors are from Rajasthan and Delhi and most of them are wildlife photographers, according to Saini.
He said that both private and government vehicles entering the national park are being checked for masks and hand sanitisers. “We are also sanitising all vehicles entering the park with a spray machine at the entrance gate."
The low numbers have translated to better sightings. “The day Ranthambore National Park reopened, Tigress T8 and her cubs blessed visitors with a sighting. Since then, Tiger T86 in zone 5 and Tigress T84 with her two cubs in zone 3 have also been seen a couple of times,” he said.
Tigress T84 Arrowhead and her cubs are the latest superstars of Ranthambore. Vishnu Singh Rathore, a nature guide at Ranthambore, said that his guests from Jaipur fell in love with the tigress when they spotted her on June 12.
Rathore, who runs a homestay, a budget hotel and a travel agency (Jungle Adventure Tours) is overjoyed that the park is seeing visitors again. “I have taken my guests for two safaris ever since the park reopened and the experience has been amazing."
The response of tourists has been pretty good, he added, with more people reaching out to him for safari bookings. “I went with the driver, and three guests in a gypsy and we were able to spot Arrowhead within the first few minutes of the safari."
While most forest guides are happy to be back in the jungle, some are still hesitant to step out from their homes. Shyam Sundar, a forest guide at Sariska Tiger Reserve, says that he is not going to join work before October. “Most of the visitors in Sariska are from Delhi and Gurgaon and I have been reading about the rapid spread of the virus in the NCR region, I can’t risk my life right now,” he said.
Sariska has reopened to thin crowds but officials are hopeful that the footfall would increase before the tiger reserve closes for monsoon. Range Forest Officer (RFO) Shankar Singh says that so far only fifteen tourists have visited the tiger reserve since it was reopened on June 8. “One tourist was from Delhi while the remaining were from the state itself."
While Ranthambore and Sariska may have always been a huge draw for nature lovers, if you are stuck in Jaipur, visiting the Jhalana Leopard Park can be your best bet. It’s the best time to visit myriad leopards in Jhalana and all wildlife enthusiasts must make the most of this opportunity.
Speaking to Outlook Traveller, Kunal Gangwal, who runs World of Wilders, the only travel company that organises leopard safaris in Jhalana, also said sightings have been extremely satisfying. “On an average, we are taking four gypsies, each with five visitors every day. And on Sunday, we took eight gypsies for the safari."
The naturalist said that it was a delight to watch leopardess Sharmili with her cubs Kesar and Kesari. Jhalana is home to as many as 34 leopards, of which 25 can be easily spotted in the tourist area. The park is open round the year and this is the best time for maximum sightings, given the reduced number of visitors.